Event Report: Conference on Children's Books in Translation + Debate

Last week, the lovely Becky @ The Bookette invited me for a conference on Children's Lit which took place during the Flow Festival on International Translation Day (30th Sept). She went to the entire day, while I only went to that one conference, so I'll link to her article as soon as she writes it ;)

Translated books are very important to me, but what is really special is the foreign language and culture behind the translated book. When I read a book, any book, I like to learn things and be surprised. Now that doesn't happen often when I read a paranormal romance these days, but it usually happens when I discover a foreign writer translated in English. There is a certain rhythm to the sentences and to the action that you don't always find in an Anglo-Saxon book, but also an enormous amount of knowledge linked to that culture.

I know that it is just me, and that it is easy for me to say "I like translated literature" when I am only saying that I like the literature from my native country or the one where I have lived. All the Anglo-Saxon authors I have read in French when I was a kid were by essence translated books. So I do realise that it comes more naturally to me than anyone else, especially when you are surrounded by by so many amazing English books.

During this conference there were many persons from various backgrounds, a foreign author, a bookseller of foreign titles, a publisher of foreign authors in English, and someone more industry and business focused. 

The members of the panel pointed out that making children read translated books from foreign authors was a way to engage them even more in literature. The idea that children are prejudiced against such books is entirely false, they accept everything and are even attracted to more "exotic" books. Literature in itself has no borders and it is very important for children to learn no boundaries while growing up. Increasing the diversity of a child's reads increases the chances of him becoming an avid reader tomorrow.

Children get a lot from a translated book, from a different world view to various historical contexts, some themes in children literature are completely universal though there is a cognitive process where children see their cultural references completely upside down. The intuition children have makes them see the gaps in the translation and understand the meaning of it. Picture books are actually the hardest books to translate because you have to catch the essence of the story in a couple of sentences.

What is actually Lost in Translation? For the members of the panels, there is obviously a loss, in terms of language and how the culture is reflected. But it's better to have these books in some form than in no form at all. In the classrooms, there are several actions which can be done to promote translated books. Special days/months like Black History Month or National Poetry Day can be turned in big events and facilitate the use of translated books. There are very creative ways to approach the curriculum and the books can be used for translation exercises for example.
The UK is one of the "worst" countries in terms of translated fiction (below 10%, if not below 5%, is the percentage of translated books in all the books published in the UK each year) whereas countries like Germany of France have an average of 30/40% of translated books.

I agreed on the majority of what was said but realised that I didn't see translated books exactly the same way they did. They talked mainly about translated *literary* literature and classics. I know these books should be read and translated, but this vision only fuels the common idea that a translated book is by essence old, boring and very literary. With Becky we could name a few children/YA translated books which were published in the last couple of years and had made a success (if a translated book makes its way in a small WHSmith, chances are it is a commercial success). We thought that the most important part of translating a foreign author is to share the amazing book he/she wrote. Is the ever increasing fanbase of Stieg Larsson (which I know are adult books!) actually bothered by him not being English/American? 
I would love for the Italian author Licia Troisi to be translated in English, not because you learn things on Italy (because it's fantasy and the action takes place in another time and place) or because you can improve your Italian, but because she is an absolutely amazing fantasy writer and creates those wonderful stories with fascinating female characters in them. And I am sure people would relate to Licia more on the fantasy aspect than on the Italian aspect.

Anyways, enough of me, what do you guys think? 
Do you read translated books? What is your opinion of them? What could be done to make them more popular?


  1. I find this all fascinating, and I loved reading your post. I read a lot of British classics translated into Italian when I was younger. I'm not sure whether I read many translations now, but I probably read more than I think I do. Sometimes it's not obvious, is it?! My son absolutely adored Jo Nesbo's Doctor Proktor - in fact, I think it's up there with his favourite books - and that's a translation... but I had to look it up just now to make sure I was right about that! The translation is absolutely excellent. (And so is the book!)
    You're definitely right that children welcome reading about other worlds and that they easily leap over any cultural gaps.
    Thank you for this brilliant post.

  2. I am soooooooooo with you on this, but then I'm French too so I think like you I am probably more "aware" of translations. I think things have got much better here; when I first started working in school libraries over 10 (ahem) years ago, there was barely anything available from France for example. Now there is much more: Pennac, de Fombelle, Zenatti and in picture books Rita & Machin, Boutavant, and soon Dautremer are finally making it here. I just wish someone would translate Marie-Aude Murail's "Miss Charity" because people would adore it here!
    But I think many readers are not comfortable with translation works. You mentioned Larsson; when we read "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" with my book group, everybody complained about the difficulty of the "foreign names" for example, despite loving the book. It's the same with films; the Americans are doing theur version of "Girl with Dragon Tattoo" despite the fact that there is already a very decent Swedish film!
    Anyway, I'm ranting, sorry. As you can see, I am as passionate on this subject as you are! :0)
    Great post!

  3. Sorry it has taken me forever to read this. The curse of the plague invaded school and we all grew purple antenna. Ok....so maybe I am exaggerating a bit but I was really not well.

    So to the article, I agree. I'm am disappointed there were only two comments. More perspectives on the theme of translated literature would be nice.

    I agree that we need to think beyond literary translation and more in terms of mainstream titles. That is where the money is after all. How many books are we missing out on because they are not available in English. When I think of how much I enjoyed The Unit, I know there must be other Swedish books that I would love.

    More translated fiction - children's - or otherwise.

    I'll hopefully write a post on this by the end of the week. :-)

  4. Foreign children’s books are a wonderful way to get our younger generation involved in more literature. There’s such an extensive selection for Spanish, Italian, German and French children’s books , and any one of them can aid in early exposure to new languages and different cultures.

  5. I get confused and stress to find a topic for my assignment about children's literature!!
    I have to pick up an issue concerning children's literature. But I dont know what should I do! I have done browsing, reading children's books, trying to find something to discuss in my paper. but I think I dont find anything to do the paper.